An often-overlooked decade for horror gets the spotlight, & we’ll tell you what to watch & what to skip.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the work being covered here wouldn’t exist.
Hurry up and finish watching everything in the Criterion Channel’s High School Horror collection, because they’re doing it again with a brand new one devoted to 90s horror, starting today. Unlike last year’s expansive 80s Horror offering, there’s just eleven films in this collection, with three more coming in November and December. That’s cleverly reflective of the state of horror in the 90s, as are some of the selected films stretching the definition of “horror.”
After the glorious heights of the 80s, when horror movies were practically printing their own money, it all came inexplicably crashing down the following decade. Slasher films were all but dead, except for the Scream movies, which mostly provided wry meta-commentary on them. Much of what was offered was stylish but empty (and not particularly scary) sequels and remakes, made by people who didn’t think much of horror movies (or their fans), and were greeted in kind with lukewarm audience reception.
As an example of how dire things got, the most successful horror movie of 1993 was the campy killer kid flick The Good Son, in which the scariest it gets is Macaulay Culkin pushing a mannequin off a bridge and causing a car accident. Horror wouldn’t make a real comeback until the end of the decade, thanks mostly to the surprise success of The Sixth Sense, an original old-fashioned ghost story without all the hyperstylized bells and whistles of the remake of House on Haunted Hill, released the same year.
There were some gems to be found, though, some of which are offered here. With the usual warning that this is but one person’s opinion, here’s what’s available in the 90s horror collection, rated according to “must watch,” “should watch,” and “what, Candyman wasn’t available?”
The Exorcist III (1990, dir. William Peter Blatty): A flop upon release (mostly because audiences went into it expecting a traditional sequel to The Exorcist and got a murder mystery with long, existential conversations about the nature of evil), it would take years to gain the horror fan devotion that The Exorcist III enjoys today. Jason Miller returns as Father Karras (or rather, Patient X, a body being controlled by the spirit of a serial killer), but he plays a supporting role as George C. Scott (never looking angrier) tries to solve a series of gruesome deaths that are indirectly connected to that fateful fall down a flight of stairs back in 1973. The Exorcist III is deeply unsettling and very sad, with its most gripping scene a conversation between Scott and a never-better Brad Dourif, who has a vested interest in convincing Scott that evil is real. Oh yeah, and there’s also that legendary jump scare.
In the Mouth of Madness (1994, dir. John Carpenter): The final film in John Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy” (the second one, Prince of Darkness, was featured in the 80s horror line-up) is also arguably the most baffling movie in his entire filmography. Sam Neill is an insurance investigator assigned to look into the disappearance of a horror writer whose work seems to be driving readers insane, and the case takes him on a journey into Lovecraftian-style terror, involving portals into alternate universes, ancient monsters, and the end of the world. The near-constant flipping of the narrative between “real” and “fantasy” will leave you asking “What the hell is happening?” followed by “Why is this freaking me out so much?”
Ravenous (1999, dir. Antonia Bird): The darkest of dark comedies, Ravenous, another movie that sadly went unappreciated by audiences upon its initial release, also deftly blends horror, historical drama, and an old-fashioned Western to memorable results. Robert Carlyle, with madness in his eyes from the minute we first see him, is a mysterious stranger with a taste for human flesh, who wreaks havoc on a remote military camp during the Mexican-American War. A lot of familiar faces show up, including Guy Pearce and David Arquette, but it’s Carlyle who dominates, playing a psychopath who really enjoys his work.
The Addiction (1995, dir. Abel Ferrara): The traditional vampire tale is given a philosophical twist in Abel Ferrara’s moody black and white thriller, in which Lili Taylor plays a graduate student who experiences a monstrous transformation after a violent encounter with a stranger. A gripping metaphor for drug addiction, it features Christopher Walken as Taylor’s mentor of sorts (who recommends that she reads Naked Lunch, in case you didn’t get that this is a movie about a college student in the 90s), and a magnetic Annabella Sciorra as the mysterious woman who’s responsible for Taylor’s new and uncontrollable thirst. Sciorra isn’t the only future cast member of The Sopranos here, as Edie Falco and Michael Imperioli also appear in supporting roles.
Tales From the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight (1995, dir. Ernest Dickerson): The first of two movies inspired by the hit HBO series (we shan’t talk about the follow-up Bordello of Blood), Demon Knight is gruesome fun, featuring a delightfully hammy Billy Zane as an otherworldly “collector” whose search for an artifact brings him to a desert boarding house. Jada Pinkett is his unexpectedly formidable foe, bolstered by a memorable collection of supporting actors, including C.C.H. Pounder, Thomas Haden Church, William Sadler, and horror icon Dick Miller. Not known for comedy acting at that point, Zane has the time of his life as a charismatic yet easily flustered villain who wonders why these people don’t just hurry up and die already.
The Rapture (1991, dir. Michael Tolkin): While not technically a horror movie, The Rapture is eerie and disturbing, and poses some uncomfortable questions about faith. Mimi Rogers plays Sharon, who renounces her promiscuous lifestyle and lives a pious, godly existence until her husband (David Duchovny, with an incredible mullet) is murdered. Her faith in God shaken, Sharon, young daughter in tow, takes an arduous journey into the desert in anticipation of the Rapture, where things eventually take an even darker turn. Critics didn’t know what to make of it at the time (though Roger Ebert loved it), but The Rapture would fit right in today in A24’s line-up.
Frankenhooker (1990, dir. Frank Henenlotter): Hi, wanna date? That phrase will be stuck in the back of your head forever after watching Frank Henenlotter’s good-naturedly gory and very silly Frankenhooker. A scientist, driven mad by the death-by-lawnmower loss of his fiancée, goes to extreme results to bring her back to life, with wildly unpredictable results. A committed-to-the-bit Patty Mullin plays his creation, in a movie that’s seeking more to offend than scare, but manages to be entertaining in its own gross way.
Def by Temptation (1990, dir. James Bond III): Despite its punny title, Def by Temptation is a fairly straightforward, stylish despite its low budget horror film about a young student minister (James Bond III, also the writer and director) who visits New York City and finds himself drawn to a mysterious woman whose promises of earthly pleasures prove too difficult for him to resist. An often overlooked work in Black horror, with its low-fi look, New York at its most dangerously sexy vibes, obsession leading to destruction themes, and questions about faith versus flesh, it’d make an excellent double feature with The Addiction.
Body Parts (1991, dir. Eric Red): A fascinating mess of a film, Body Parts probably didn’t do much to improve public opinion on organ donation. Horror mainstay Jeff Fahey stars as a prison psychologist who loses his arm in a car accident, and then undergoes an experimental procedure to have a new arm from a supposedly deceased donor surgically attached to his body. The surgery is a success, but with one slightly problematic side effect: the donor was a serial killer, and Fahey can see what he saw. An intriguing premise that goes off the rails in the third act, it also stars Brad Dourif, who shockingly doesn’t play the serial killer.
When a Stranger Calls Back (1993, dir. Fred Walton): A rather puzzling selection (but hey, it’s better than The Good Son), this long-after-the-original sequel features a new babysitter tormented by a new child-killing psychopath, though original heroine Carol Kane does show up to help. The tense, creepy mood is ruined by the absolutely goofy reveal of how said psychopath is able to avoid capture, but Kane is always a welcome presence, and the fact that everyone involved plays it straight somewhat mitigates the “oh, come on” aspect of it.
WHAT, CANDYMAN WASN’T AVAILABLE?
Dust Devil (1992, dir. Richard Stanley): The less said about Richard Stanley the better at this point, but this incoherent drug trip is less a horror movie and more just a series of bizarre, dream-like images with nothing really connecting them except the concept of a “dust devil,” a supernatural humanoid creature that forms from desert sand. Artsy but empty, it makes for fine background noise, and not much else. If you absolutely must see something by Stanley, try his debut film Hardware, which also isn’t the most coherent film in the world, but is a great deal more entertaining.
COMING NOVEMBER 1st
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992, dir. Francis Ford Coppola): There are two kinds of people in the world: those who hate Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and those who love it, and they’re the cool and sexy people. Francis Ford Coppola’s lush, bodice-ripping take on the classic novel is a feast not just for lovers of extravagant costume design, but also questionable accents. Sexy, creepy, campy, and gorgeous to behold, it features career-high performances by Anthony Hopkins and Gary Oldman, both having the time of their lives serving up steaming platters of ham as eternal nemeses Van Helsing and Count Dracula, who fight for the soul of a subdued Winona Ryder, so fair and delicate she looks like a wee porcelain doll. If you haven’t watched this yet, what are you waiting for, a telegram from Romania?
Body Snatchers (1993, dir. Abel Ferrara): While the 1979 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers remains the best adaptation of Jack Finney’s sci-fi horror novel, don’t overlook Abel Ferrara’s take on it, which suggests that the pod person invasion is already well underway before the movie even starts. A teenage girl moves with her family to an Alabama military base and quickly discovers that there’s a dark reason for the polite but chilly reception she gets from other people in the town. Ferrara really digs into the paranoid and pessimistic “and then there was one” tone of the story, as emphasized by a bone-chilling turn by co-star Meg Tilly, who encourages her husband to take the pod person way out simply because “There’s no one like you left.”
COMING DECEMBER 1st
Event Horizon (1997, dir. Paul W.S. Anderson): Sam Neill merrily returns to Hell again in Paul W.S. Anderson’s batshit science fiction horror about an expedition to rescue a starship thought to be lost years earlier. The ship is discovered to have emerged from a rip in the time-space continuum and brought back enough nightmare imagery with it to make H.P. Lovecraft say “Whoa, slow down, man.” Neill and his fellow rescue ship crewmembers are tormented with hallucinations from their haunted pasts, and faced with either losing their minds or a gruesome death, and honestly death might be the better choice. Though both critics and audiences rejected it at first, it’s since gained a cult following for its brutal, no-holds-barred imagery, at a time when horror generally played it safe.
The Criterion Channel’s 90s Horror Collection is available starting today.